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'The Handmaid's Tale' And Coming Out As Transgender


This past week, Vox's cultural critic reviewed the new season of "The Handmaid's Tale," the TV series based on Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel. The piece is called "The Catastrophist, Or: On Coming Out As Trans At 37." In some small way, critic Emily VanDerWerff writes, "The Handmaid's Tale" spurred me to confront my gender. Emily joins us now from LA.

Welcome to the program.

EMILY VANDERWERFF: It's so great to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The way that the TV series presented itself in relationship to your gender began with a dream, right? Tell me about that.

VANDERWERFF: Yeah. So I sort of, like, had been circling my gender for most of my life. And then this - I just finally had this moment where I was like, OK. You either need to kind of put up or shut up. And I then said that to my therapist. And from there, it was kind of a rolling ball of telling friends. And right in this window is when "The Handmaid's Tale" Season 2 airs. And I start having this dream about fleeing an oppressive government with my wife, and then somebody stops us by crashing into our car. And I'm shot, you know? I'm - I die. But in the dream, I'm a woman, so it's this weird divide between, like, my dream self finally sort of reflecting what I wanted my real self to be while simultaneously, like, disassembling what is the opening scene of "The Handmaid's Tale" and moving it to a more familiar geography to me - sort of northern California.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You write that confronting your gender, as you put it, also meant you had to confront your past and the community you grew up in. Can you tell us a little bit about that community?

VANDERWERFF: Right, so I grew up in a small town of about 750 people in the middle of nowhere in South Dakota. And I spent a lot of my youth in fundamentalist Christian churches that were very prescriptive about the roles that women could have. And a lot of those churches have backed off that. But, yeah, this fundamentalist upbringing really kind of - it affected me in ways that I thought about women. But by that, I mean in ways that I thought about myself, like I had limited my own imagination in terms of what it might mean for me to be a woman because of how I'd grown up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I want to read this line from what you wrote. The women were trapped between the expectations of their husbands and their God. To be a woman was to be a catastrophist; to know that if either of the walls you found yourself between shifted slightly, you might be crushed.

VANDERWERFF: Yeah. I remember when I was a little kid, I always wanted to - you know, we'd have, like, family gatherings or church gatherings. And the women would get up at the end of the meal, and they'd go into the kitchen. And I always wanted to go with them. I was always more interested in what they were talking about and what they were saying and what they were doing. I liked their style of gossip more than the gossip of the guys. But at the same time, I had, like, these huge ambitions. You know, I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to do these big, important, exciting things. And there wasn't as firm a path to do that as a woman. And, like, also, the word transgender was just, like, not in the national conversation. It was not a word I heard until I was really in my 20s.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So as you mentioned, you came out to yourself and your friends last year. How did you decide to write this very public piece?

VANDERWERFF: It felt wrong to me to not do it. I used to write at The A.V. Club. I used to have a blog. People have been following me for many years, and I've always been tremendously open. And I kind of put two blocks on that. One was I would never write about my marriage without getting my wife's permission. And the other was I was never going to write about my gender questioning - not even slightly. Like, I wasn't going to be, like, well, you know, sometimes, I feel like masculine expectations are too much for me. Like, I steered clear of that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Interesting.

VANDERWERFF: So I knew I needed to get it down on paper because it would feel false to me if I suddenly was just publishing under the name Emily. And there are plenty of trans journalists who were like, oh, you should just start publishing under your new name. And, yeah, I could have done that. But I also think the relationship the critic has to the reader is a very important one, so it was born out of that. And then it just gradually became, like - there is this incredible assault on trans rights in America right now. And, like, I am a now vaguely public trans person writing about these issues. Like, if there was a way I could use my coming out to draw just a little bit of attention to that, it felt to me like a net good.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can I ask you to read the second to last paragraph of your piece?

VANDERWERFF: OK. (Reading) So let me start over. My name is Emily VanDerWerff. I fought hard for that name, as hard as I've ever fought for anything in my life. Now that I have it, I'm so scared of losing it. So I'm telling you in hopes you will bear it forward and carry it in your heart.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what does the road forward for you look like?

VANDERWERFF: I have a lot of trepidation around being a public trans person. Like, I'm really happy to be here. I'm so glad I'm talking to you. I'm on this show that I love. But, like, I'm also sitting here in a studio in Los Angeles. I - you know, you look at me. And you're like, OK. That's a transwoman. Like, I'm - you know? I have all of these things about womanhood I need to learn and need to synthesize into my vision of myself and, like, how I want to be a woman in the world. And I'm sitting here talking in this voice that is, like, slight pitches higher than my male voice but also, like, a little ridiculous because of that. Like, it feels like I'm trying too hard because I am because I'm training myself to, like, talk the way I want to talk. I'm training myself to look the way I want to look. And that's really hard to do in public.

But at the same time, there's a lot of people out there who are saying, I don't think I could ever do this because I would never be in a place where I could pass. And, like, if by me being here can help them, like, find some way to have peace with themselves, like, I'm going to keep doing that. And, like, I really thought I was going to spend the week after this piece hiding under a blanket, but I'm not hiding under a blanket. I need to not hide under a blanket until people are free to live the lives they want to live and until trans people have rights in this country that are commensurate with their identity as human beings. And we're a long way away from that, but we're not so far if people can look and see that we exist and that we are - like me, I'm the most boring, white lady who shops at Target. And, like, you know, that's just the way it is. I'm non-scary.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Emily VanDerWerff is critic at large at Vox.

Thank you very much.

VANDERWERFF: It was so great to be here.